Clara Hughes is Nails

One of my passions is road cycling, which is why I was up this morning before dawn on Saturday July 28th to watch the Men’s Road Race of the 2012 Olympics. Ryder Hesjedal, who I wrote about after his 2012 win of the Giro d’Italia (Ryder Hesjedal, Cycling, and Emily Dickinson), is representing Canada. Tomorrow is the Women’s Road Race. Team Canada has three women: Joelle Numainville of Laval Quebec, Denise Ramsden of Yellowknife NWT, and Clara Hughes from Glen Sutton, Quebec (born Winnipeg).

Obviously Hughes is the best known of this trio and it will be interesting to see how the race unfolds. On Hughes website she wrote about riding a famous (or perhaps infamous is a better word) climb in Belgium called the Mur de Huy. It is often hard to convey the steepness of certain climbs unless and until you ride (or more likely, walk) up these ascents.

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The climb has a length of only about 1,300 meters but with an average grade of 9.3% and some sections around 17% and 26% in one bend. It is featured in the great classic road race La Flèche Wallonne. Here is her journal entry and it conveys why, beyond the Maple Leaf on her jersey, I hope she has good legs on Sunday and pulls off a podium finish for herself or one of her teammates. Anyone in the race who underestimates Hughes’ competitive fire or the suffering she can take and dish out is in for a surprise; she is nails.

Scared shitless in Belgium: Winning Fleche Wallonne as a TEAM!!

April 19, 2012

There’s not much I fear in life but steep walls of paved road make me cringe. I look at them and have an allergic reaction. There is something inside of me that just can’t get over the damned things without detonating.

Which made me think long and hard Monday and Tuesday just what I was doing in Belgium. The Fleche Wallonne was part of my month of immersion of bike racing in Europe. A mid-week classic race, it’s known, for the uninitiated, as one of the monuments of the classic races in Europe. The race is infamous for its relentless race course of climb after climb, and its crowning glory is the Mur de Huy. Yes, that’s right, THE WALL OF HUY. Wall, you say? Isn’t a wall a vertical? This is a wall-road. It is the steepest thing on my cycling earth and literally gives a rider like me panic attacks.

Why so scared of the Mur? It’s a stretch of vertical that exposes every single weakness I have as a bike racer. If I was going up the thing alone I would still pedal in fear. It’s steep and then gets steeper and steeper….and steeper still. I can’t begin to adequately explain the severity of the climb. The first and only other time I did Fleche, back in 1998 I think, teammate Sue Palmer explained it to me and I remember thinking ‘it can’t be that bad…’ Not only could it not be ‘that bad’, my wildest imagination could not create the reality of this climb.

Ouch.

It hurts.

And then in opens a wound in the deepest, darkest place in your soul and pours salt in that wound.

Then it rubs the salt in the open wound and laughs in your face as you burn with pain.

That’s the Mur for me and that’s why I was:

(a) Sad that we go up it twice instead of once when I raced it before

(b) seriously questioning my ability and reasoning for being a racing cyclist this past week…yes, there were many moments of ‘skating is soooooo much easier than this’ that passed through my brain.

and

(c) Worried that I would not even make it to the Mur de Huy with all the climbs beforehand….worried I would have nothing to contribute to my teammates to try to win this race!

Which leads me to our team meeting and the task(s) I was given. It seemed that the team (staff, teammates, everyone but me) believed I could get over the damn Mur if not with the front group, at worst, just behind.

Task #1 was to do just this. Task #2 was to get back with the leaders wasting not an ounce of energy because that was when my real work was to start.

Which leads me to Task #3: ATTACK!!!!

Okay, attack. Attack? Attack when not a cell in my body believed it possible I could make it up the Mur with anyone in sight but the stragglers minutes behind? Just how was I going to do this? I had to do it because I am on the best team in the world.

The belief from everyone around me made me think long and hard as to what I had to do and how I had to do it. Our little team captain, Trixi Worrack, put the icing of hope on my cake of disbelief. She said ‘Clara, no matter what, you just sit up and over the Huy. You sit and let people bring you back. You do this and then you ATTACK. You have to save your energy to attack.’

And then team director, Ronny, said ‘Clara, you have the instinct as to when to attack. Use this. You have the experience to know and the strength to go. And, you have the experience to use you energy wisely in the breakaway. You can do this.’

Which was sprinkled with a dusting of magic when team owner Kristy Scrymgeour, just before the start, said to me ‘Clara you are riding awesome. You are so strong and climbing so well. You need to know you can do this today. Believe.’ Or something along those lines.

With these tasks I went to the start and commenced the 15th Fleche Wallonne Feminin with over 150 other racers. Massive winds, bouts of rain, crashes by racers, a wipe out by a motorcyclist right in the peloton, twists, turns, hills, towns, forests…..big roads and small….bumps, gravel and screaming mad female cyclists…..this storming chaos made its way through the Belgian countryside. And the race made its way to the Mur.

At this point you’re probably thinking my team wanted me to win the race. Oh, no. It’s better than that. Much better than the simple plan of attack, breakaway, win. No, no, no. It’s far more exciting than that. When you are up against a prolific and versatile champion like Dutch superstar Marianne Vos, it has to be far more than this simple plan. And, like I said, encouragement aside, with the ride of my life I’m not going to win up the Mur de Huy. But I could certainly survive without the gaping salt filled wound I described earlier.

And survive I did, to do my job. Starting the Mur at the front helped. I let people pass me. Instead of picking my way past people or getting caught behind instant implosions, I wove back into the group of girls accelerating, blowing up, passing and re-passing. It was like being in a video game and I was in full control of where I was and the maneuvering I did. I made it up the Mur, like Trixi said, as strong as possible and ready to attack.

I sat in the group about twenty seconds behind the leaders. About 25 of them. I sat and let others chase because I had three teammates ahead in that group of 25. Three teammates who were waiting for me to make the move that would start our race. My other two teammates, Ally and Emilia, had already done a superb job of woman-ning the front of the peloton, bringing us safely and positioned to the foot of the Mur. Their job was done and now it was my turn. Yikes.

We got back on and the Greenedge Team started the fireworks. I knew there were a slew of girls waiting for me to attack so I had to wait. Sit and wait and float and feel the moment to move. Feel it and not think it. Feel it and GO. And then, it was there, and I was gone. Gone! I attacked and got the gap. Bridged up to an AA Drink rider and, though she was weaker, I knew we would need her to stay away. I just hoped she would work. Ahead was a GreenEdge racer who is a podium fixture in the time trial the last number of years at the world championships. In other words, super strong and the perfect breakaway companion. She time trialed ahead and I time trialed behind to catch her. All the while, we distanced ourselves from what was left of the pack.

All the while, the team of Marianne Vos had to chase. Which was why I attacked. They chased and burned the matches they had until the pack was almost empty. My three little climbing machine teammates sat and spun their legs behind. Trixi, Evie and Amber sat and waited while we hammered away ahead.

The last 30kms will be forever etched in my memory bank of bike racing. The move, it worked!! The breakaway, the perfect combination, it worked! Then, that moment with approximately 6 kms to go when I turned around and saw Vos about 50 feet behind. Parked right on her wheel I saw the instantly recognizable form and style of Evie. She rides like she’s listening to her i-pod and bopping to a hit tune. I saw Evie and thought ‘Oh man now we go!!!…now the race begins!!’.

Yes, I was tired, yes, there were big winds blowing from all around. It was a moment where I pounded two Gu gels from my pocket, took a swig of coke I grabbed in the feed above the Mur, and said to myself ‘LET’S GO!!’ I didn’t even talk to Evie. No words were necessary.

I rode AS HARD as I could for the next 5.4 kilometers or so, with the four other girls sitting behind. I don’t want to know the sounds of suffering that came out of me. All I could think of was ‘I have to bring Evie to the Mur so she; we; can win Fleche!!’ I knew if I brought her there we would win. I knew if I did the work she would know that there was no way she could lose. The energy I gave would make her even more motivated to finish it off for not just herself, but for us, for our team.

And then, halfway up the Mur, when they passed me, Evie looked back into my eyes and I yelled at her ‘BE SMART!!’. She smiled, nodded, and they rode away. And the rest is history.

And, you know what, I didn’t fall off my bike. I grunted and used every muscle fiber in my body to keep the pedals turning and get up that climb…..

Evie won in spectacular fashion. I held on for 8th place. We won as a team. We screamed and cheered like goofy kids after the finish. We won because we had a plan that used our strength as a unit. Not as individuals. But as a team.

And finally, I think I can climb these damn walls a little better than I thought. I guess my team was right. In having a task to do and the team’s belief, I found something inside myself I did not know was there.

What a beautiful day. A day I am so glad is done!

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